Saturday 11 April 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Flowers for Mrs Harris

My latest virtual visit to a regional theatre is to one I've been to before in person, although not for a couple of years: Chichester Festival Theatre, and Daniel Evans' production of Flowers for Mrs Harris, which he transferred there in 2018 after a run at his previous job in Sheffield. Rachel Wagstaff (book) and Richard Taylor's (music & lyrics) musical is based on a novella by American author Paul Gallico better known as Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris, which is perhaps a helpful indicator of the kind of salt-of-the-earth working-class image of a London charlady Ada Harris (Clare Burt) is. Widowed in the Second World War and childless, she has little in her life except making ends meet through the various ungrateful clients whose houses she cleans. She ploughs through stoically until one day she covers a friend's shift cleaning for a deluded minor aristocrat (Joanna Riding,) where she spots a Christian Dior dress and becomes determined to own one some day.

A minor pools win gives her a head start but for the most part it's taking on lots of additional work and denying herself everyday necessities that saves her up the cash to make a one-off, one-day trip to Paris with enough money to get her to the Dior store, and hopefully leave with her dream dress.

This is clearly a well-meaning show and a production with a lot of warmth, starting from Burt's performance and spreading out to the rest of the cast, so it feels a bit mean-spirited to pick at it but there's no question there's an unfortunate undertone to the first act especially, which particularly given the UK's response to the COVID-19 crisis makes it seem dubious timing to release this show: It plays on the old trope of the heroic working class person plodding through and making sacrifices in return for very little, which makes for uncomfortable viewing when we're surrounded by stories about how we should lionise key workers and call them heroes so long as we don't do anything so extreme as to, god forbid, pay them properly or look after their wellbeing. (Ironically at a different time this might have carried quite a different message with regard to the working poor - its theme that an extravagance, even one as OTT as this one, might be what makes a hard life worth living is a powerful response to those who want to police how those with very little money choose to spend it. Lez Brotherston's design keeps us on-theme with this with a fairly underplayed, drab steel design that comes to visual life in the replica Dior dresses.)

The second act is better, partly because Ada's trip to Paris takes the fairytale aspect up several notches, and without the pretence of gritty realism there isn't the worry about the underlying messages that brings with it. Here Mrs Harris is faced with counterpoints to the people who don't appreciate what she does for them at home, as Laura Pitt-Pulford's vile wannabe actress is replaced by a supermodel who misses the everyday life, Louis Maskell's self-involved photographer becomes an accountant with a romantic heart, and Riding's sneery aristocrat turns into a vulnerable store manager who Ada helps stand up to her bullying boss (Gary Wilmot.)

Musically the second act comes to life a bit more are well - Flowers for Mrs Harris is the kind of almost through-sung musical that seems to struggle to resolve itself into actual songs with a beginning, middle and end, but with the livelier supporting characters of the Parisian scenes come opportunities for more defined tunes. Evans' production shows that it can dust off the cobwebs when it wants to, like when the saccharine opening scene of Ada and her infinitely supportive husband (Mark Meadows) is undercut by the revelation that this was all in her head and he's actually long-dead. But while its Cinderella story of Burt's lovable Mrs Harris getting what she deserves has moments that couldn't help but bring a smile to my face, even without overthinking its political subtext the overall effect is too twee for me.

Flowers for Mrs Harris by Rachel Wagstaff  and Richard Taylor, based on the novella by Paul Gallico, is available until the 8th of May at Chichester Festival Theatre's website.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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